The NBA postseason has always provided some entertaining press conferences. In 2016-17, Memphis head coach David Fizdale delivered the holy grail of tirades, accusing officials of ignoring calls against the Grizzlies in favor of the veteran San Antonio Spurs. He famously echoed the line, “Take that for data!” as he stormed off the podium.
Well, not to be outdone, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich bested Fizdale by accusing Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia of a dirty play that injured Kawhi Leonard, an MVP candidate and the Spurs’ best player.
Not only did Popovich cry foul, he did his homework. The San Antonio coach referred to previous incidents regarding Pachulia, those in which his conduct could be best described as less than clean.
On the play in question, Pachulia slid under Leonard on a closeout as the latter attempted a corner jumper. Leonard’s already injured ankle came down squarely on Pachulia’s foot. The 23-point lead at the time disappeared, effectively ending the game and most likely the series.
“The two-step lead with your foot closeout is not appropriate,” Popovich told reporters. “It's dangerous, it's unsportsmanlike, it's just not what anybody does to anybody else. And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action."
Popovich dismissed any talk of Pachulia’s intent, going so far as to liken the situation to vehicular manslaughter. “Have you ever heard of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you're texting and you end up killing somebody, but may have not intended to do that,” Popovich continued. “All I care is what I saw. All I care about is what happened. And the history there exacerbates the whole situation and makes me very, very angry."
Leonard and Pachulia have a history, as well. When the center was a member of the Dallas Mavericks, he grabbed and twisted Leonard’s arm while the Spurs swingman attempted to get up from the ground. The dangerous play could have resulted in a broken arm. During the same season, Pachulia also got into a skirmish with current teammate David West–then of the Spurs.
When questioned about the play, Warriors forwards Draymond Green and West both declined to offer an analysis of the player. Neither accused Pachulia of being dirty, but they did not deny it either.
Leonard is slated to miss Game 2, and his availability for future games remains in question. Even if Leonard returns for Game 3, his effectiveness will be affected. Even in the 113-111 Game 1 loss, Leonard showed occasional signs of attrition. Popovich held Leonard out of the decisive Game 6 win against the Houston Rockets, in addition to the overtime period in Game 5.